bart_kosko's picture
Information Scientist and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Law, University of Southern California; Author, Noise, Fuzzy Thinking

Society will change when the poor and middle class have easy access to cryonic suspension of their cognitive remains — even if the future technology involved ultimately fails.

Today we almost always either bury dead brains or burn them. Both disposal techniques result in irreversible loss of personhood information because both techniques either slowly or quickly destroy all the brain tissue that houses a person's unique neural-net circuitry. The result is a neural information apocalypse and all the denial and superstition that every culture has evolved to cope with it.

Some future biocomputing technology may extract and thus back-up this defining neural information or wetware. But no such technology is in sight despite the steady advances of Moore's Law doubling of transistor density on computer chips every two years or so. Nor have we cracked the code of the random pulse train from a single neuron. Hence we are not even close to making sense of the interlocking pulse trains of the billions of chattering neurons in a functioning human brain.

So far the only practical alternative to this information catastrophe is to vitrify the brain and store it indefinitely in liquid nitrogen at about -320 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the best vitrification techniques still produce massive cell damage that no current or even medium-term technology can likely reverse. But the shortcomings of early twenty-first century science and engineering hardly foreclose the technology options that will be available in a century and far less so in a millennium. Suspended brain tissue needs only periodic replacement of liquid nitrogen to wait out the breakthroughs.

Yet right now there are only about 100 brains suspended in liquid nitrogen in a world where each day about 150,000 people die.

That comes to fewer than three suspended brains per year since a 40-year-old and post-Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick hailed the promise of cryonic suspension in his 1968 Playboy interview. Kubrick cast death as a problem of bioengineering: "Death is no more natural or inevitable than smallpox or diphtheria. Death is a disease and as susceptible to cure as any other disease." The Playboy interviewer asked Kubrick if he was interested in being frozen. Kubrick said that he "would be if there were adequate facilities available." But just over three decades later Kubrick opted for the old neural apocalypse when he could easily have afforded a first-class cryonic suspension in quite adequate facilities.

The Kubrick case shows that dollar cost is just one factor that affects the ease of mass access to cryonics. Today many people can afford a brain-only suspension by paying moderate premiums for a life-insurance policy that would cover the expenses. But almost no one accepts that cryonics wager. There are also stigma costs from the usual scolds in the church and in bioethics. There is likewise no shortage of biologists who will point out that you cannot get back the cow from the hamburger.

And there remains the simple denial of the inexorable neural catastrophe. That denial is powerful enough that it keeps the majority of citizens from engaging in rational estate planning. The probate code in some states such as California even allows valid handwritten wills that an adult can pen (but not type) and sign in minutes and without any witnesses. But only a minority of Californians ever executes these handwritten wills or the more formal attested wills. The great majority dies intestate and thus they let the chips fall where the state says they fall.

So it is not too surprising that the overwhelming majority of the doomed believe that the real or imagined transaction costs of brain suspension outweigh its benefits if they think about the matter at all. But those costs will only fall as technology marches on ever faster and as the popular culture adapts to those tech changes. One silver lining of the numbing parade of comic-book action movies is how naturally the younger viewing audience tends to embrace the fanciful information and biotechnology involved in such fare even if the audience lacks a like enthusiasm for calculus.

Again none of this means that brain suspension in liquid nitrogen will ever work in the sense that it leads to some type of future resurrection of the dead. It may well never work because the required neuro-engineering may eventually prove too difficult or too expensive or because future social power groups outlaw the practice or because of many other technical or social factors. But then again it may work if enough increased demand for such brain suspensions produces enough economies of scale and spurs enough technical and business innovation to pull it off. There is plenty of room for skepticism and variation in all the probability estimates.

But just having an affordable and plausible long shot at some type of resurrection here on Earth will in time affect popular belief systems and lengthen consumer time horizons. That will in turn affect risk profiles and consumption patterns and so society will change and perhaps abruptly so. A large enough popular demand for brain suspensions would allow democracies to directly represent some of the interests from potential far-future generations because no one would want themselves or their loved ones to revive and find a spoiled planet. Our present dead-by-100 life spans make it all too easy to treat the planet like a rental car as we run up the social credit cards for unborn debtors.

The cryonics long shot lets us see our pending brain death not as the solipsistic obliteration of our world but as the dreamless sleep that precedes a very major surgery.